The Pan-African Parliament was established by the African Union in 2004. Since then it has not passed a single law. That’s because it’s based on a Protocol that gives it only an advisory role. The parliament can gather information and discuss it, but can’t make binding regulations to change anything.
Its limited “consultative and advisory powers” hamper the African Union’s ability to achieve a prosperous and peaceful Africa as envisioned in its Agenda 2063.
Is there any point, then, in having this parliament?
The 2001 Protocol envisaged that a conference would be organised to “review the operation and effectiveness” of the protocol five years after the establishment of the Parliament, which was 2009. This provision gave rise to the view that such a conference would explore the possibility of granting the Parliament meaningful legislative powers. But no such review has been carried out so far.
Nothing much changed
Instead, the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government replaced the old Protocol with the new 2014 PAP Protocol. Nothing much changed. The new Protocol gave the Pan African Parliament powers to submit “draft model laws to the Assembly … for its consideration and approval”.
This still falls way short of meaningful lawmaking powers. By letting things remain as they were, African leaders are showing that the Parliament will remain a nominal platform. It is unlikely to become an effective organ with the mandate to pass the kind of laws that will advance African integration and development.
Denying the continental Parliament reasonable legislative powers undermines its legitimacy and raises concerns about its relevance.
New thinking needed
Yet there is important work that it could be doing. The Pan African Parliament could be advancing Agenda 2063 programmes. The agenda outlines seven goals, to be achieved over the next 50 years, that are central to achieving political and economic development in Africa. These include promoting peace and security, good governance, youth development and gender equity.
A Pan African Parliament with real legislative powers could lead the harmonisation of standards and policies across the continent. It could oversee African Union organs such as the Commission, and national parliaments.
This would require a new way of thinking. Some member states or regional parliaments may want to work directly with the Pan African Parliament to draft continental legislation. Indeed, the 2014 Protocol recognises this kind of arrangement. The challenge would be to make it work in practice.
First of all, the political will would be required to make the Pan African Parliament a true legislative assembly. The AU member states are unlikely to transfer power to it all at the same time.
The vast majority of member states have a lukewarm disposition towards African integration and are not likely to support a stronger continental parliament. These include Egypt, Angola and Botswana. Even among the more democratic member states, such as Botswana, South Africa and Ghana, national interests may come first.
Practically speaking, the AU will need to explore the possibility of a flexible or differentiated approach to transferring powers to the Pan African Parliament. This rests on the willingness of member states to deepen African integration at a quicker pace. Others may choose to join later. This would be a pragmatic way to strengthen the Parliament’s powers.
The AU will have to identify member states and regional parliaments that are prepared to work directly with the Pan African Parliament and then map out the areas in which legislative powers could be shared.
The Parliament would then develop model bills to guide willing national or regional parliaments so that every bill proposed would align with continental objectives. In the EU, on which the African Union is modelled, for example, national parliaments have the powers to review proposed legislation and comment on policies to be adopted by the European Parliament.
The final step would be to encourage direct elections to the Pan African Parliament. These could be carried out at the same time as general elections in the member states.
In the EU, members of the European Parliament are directly elected. Similarly in South America, the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) regional body allows for direct election of parliamentary representatives.
Similar to the situation in Mercosur, the AU could at the initial phase allow countries to synchronise the election of Pan-African Parliament members with national or local elections and later provide a uniform timetable for all participating member states.
Participating states would need to provide the AU with electoral schedules, and then allow it to work with their respective electoral management bodies to facilitate the regional poll. Direct elections organised in this manner would enhance awareness of the Pan African Parliament and its activities.
The way forward
The rhetoric on the need to have a stronger continental Parliament has to be matched with actions. While some member states may be willing and ready to transfer legislative powers to the continental body, others may not.
Its legitimacy ultimately depends on its ability to make laws. The AU will have to invest more time and resources in bringing willing member states to the table. Otherwise the union might as well disband the Parliament and spend its budget elsewhere.
The writer is associate professor of International Law, University of South Africa